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Georgia and Other States Accused of Misreporting Coronavirus Data Used for Reopening Plans

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  • Several states are being slammed for misreporting or misrepresenting the number of coronavirus cases and testing data.
  • The most notable example is Georgia, where some have accused the health department of misrepresenting testing data to support Gov. Kemp’s broad reopening. 
  • The agency has shared a number of misleading and even inaccurate pieces of information on its website. Most recently, it posted a graph that showed a decline in cases, but only because the dates were out of order.
  • Other states that have started reopening, like Texas and Virginia, included antibody tests in their reports, which experts say skewed the data.

Georgia’s Graph Gaff

Several states, including those with some of the broadest and most aggressive plans for reopening, are being criticized for misrepresenting and misreporting their coronavirus testing data.

Already, there are significant discrepancies between how data is reported state to state.

But the reporting of testing data is crucial for both politicians and the public to accurately understand how the pandemic is impacting their state. With that information, they can make informed choices about public health, like whether or not to reopen.

Now, experts are worried that skewed data from poor reporting could lead some states to ease restrictions too fast. Others believe that may be intentional.

Georgia is perhaps the most notable example of a state that has been widely condemned for its practice concerning data reporting.  The state’s Department of Public Health (DPA) has had numerous mishaps in the area, and was most recently accused of sharing a misleading graph.

The graph in question, shared on the DPA’s website just over a week ago, displayed the number of confirmed cases in the five most heavily hit counties over a range of two weeks.

Source: Georgia Department of Public Health

At first glance, the graph appeared to show the number of cases declining steadily. However, after looking to the bottom axis of the graph— the x-axis— it becomes apparent that the dates of each county’s recorded cases are not in order at all.

The graph starts by going from April 28 to April 27, then to April 29. At one point it even jumps from May 7 to April 26, then back to May 3.

What’s more, the colored bars—which represent different counties— were also arranged in different orders on different dates, further contributing to the appearance that the graph was showing declining cases.

However, according to an analysis of that data by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, there was not actually such a strong downward trend. 

“The data is still preliminary, and cases have held steady or dropped slightly in the past two weeks,” the newspaper reported.

The DPA eventually updated the graph, and Gov. Brian Kemp’s office issued an apology.

“The x axis was set up that way to show descending values to more easily demonstrate peak values and counties on those dates,” a spokesperson wrote on Twitter. “Our mission failed. We apologize. It is fixed.”

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The DPA, however, had a different explanation. A spokesperson told the AJC that the issue was due to an error in how it sorted dates. 

Other Errors in Georgia’s Reporting

This was not the first time that Georgia’s health department has made a significant reporting error.

According to the AJC, observers have noted “sloppiness in case counts, death counts and other measures that are fundamental to tracking a disease outbreak.”

The AJC also reported that in recent weeks, issues with the department’s data “caused confusion over whether novel coronavirus deaths had topped 1,000,” and that “The agency erroneously posted at least twice that children died.”

While it could be argued that some of those errors can be written up as a simple mistake during a chaotic and unprecedented time, many feel the graph crossed a line. Some are even skeptical that it was an accident.

“I have a hard time understanding how this happens without it being deliberate,” said State Rep. Jasmine Clark, who has a doctorate in microbiology and molecular genetics. “Literally nowhere ever in any type of statistics would that be acceptable.”

As a result, some people are worried that the data is “being portrayed in a way that favors Kemp’s early easing of restrictions,” according to the AJC.

Georgia was one of the first states to implement a sweeping reopening plan that massively scaled back restrictions. Even President Donald Trump, who has been a vocal supporter of reopening, slammed Kemp for the move.

The decision was controversial, and now, Georgia is being closely watched for what happens next. In other words, there’s a big incentive to make the numbers look good.

As the AJC points out, there are other instances where the DPA has portrayed and represented data in questionable manners—  especially when it comes to graphics.

For example, they have a map of the state that colors counties in shades of blue or red based on rates of infection. Recently, the health department changed the metrics so that the infection rate in a given county needs to be higher than it was before to be colored red.

“Based on the (key) they were using a couple weeks ago, a good third to a half of our state would show up as red right now,” said Dr. Harry Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health. “Because they keep moving the goalposts, if you will, it doesn’t look that way.”

Broader Issues With Methodology

The AJC also reported that another graph on the agency’s website “has led readers to think that cases were dropping dramatically, even though lower case numbers were the result of a lag in data collection.”

The lag in data is especially relevant because it speaks to a broader issue with the very core of the methodology the agency uses reports its data.

At first, Georgia recorded and reported coronavirus cases based on the testing date. Then, in late April, right when Kemp began to reopen the state, the DPA started reporting based on when people had symptoms.

“But because it can take weeks for case information to come in, the new method always appears to show that cases are declining, even if they are not,” the AJC reported, adding that the data lags caused by how the state records cases “mean that counts for recent dates are often a fraction of what they turn out to be when the data is more complete.”

As a result, experts have said that these daily numbers are actually a representation of what the case count was about two weeks earlier, meaning that the state’s current numbers are likely a reflection of the success the lockdown measures had.

Looking to Georgia

These data issues are highly concerning and potentially very dangerous for both the people of Georgia and the rest of the U.S.

Georgians use that data to make key decisions, and lawmakers use it to make decisions that impact millions of people in the state, but it also goes beyond that.

“Wrong information about Georgia’s battle against COVID-19 is already shaping the way the public sees the state,” the AJC wrote.

Because of that information, many have been praising Kemp’s actions and using the state as an example and evidence for reopening.

For example, in a May 8 article, the Wall Street Journal dubbed Kemp’s plan the “Georgia Model,” and used it as evidence that lockdowns are unnecessarily harming the economy. 

Other States With Data Problems

Georgia, however, is not the only state with data reporting problems.

Texas, which has arguably the broadest plan for reopening, has also shifted its testing metrics recently in a way that has problematized reporting.

“The Texas Department of State Health Service now includes antibody tests — which can detect whether a person previously recovered from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus — in its daily testing totals,” the Texas Tribune reported last week.

But as the Tribune notes, that practice makes it impossible to tell how many tests show active infections versus previous infections. That is not the only problem with combining the data from antibody tests and traditional nasal-swab tests.

It also artificially inflates both the number of tests the state says it has done and falsely improves its positivity-rate, which compares the number of people who have tested positive to the total number of people tested.

Experts have said that merging these two very different data sets basically makes a positivity-rate data unusable.

That is quite significant because increased testing and decreasing positivity rates are two of the main factors that states have used as evidence to justify reopening. Like Virginia, which until last week used both traditional and antibody tests in its case count, but stopped after receiving backlash.

The misrepresentation of data also goes beyond testing. According to reports, when it first began easing restrictions, Florida tried to suppress county coroners from releasing coronavirus death counts.

See what others are saying: (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) (Business Insider) (Vox)

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Miami Man Gets 6 Years in Prison After Using COVID Relief Funds To Buy Lamborghini

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  • A Florida man was sentenced to more than six years in prison after fraudulently obtaining $3.9 million in COVID-19 relief funds and using that money for personal purchases.
  • Authorities said David Tyler Hines falsified federal applications to secure loans from the Paycheck Protection Program loans, which were meant to help small businesses struggling during the pandemic.
  • After receiving the funds, Hines began blowing it on jewelry, resort stays, dating websites, and even a $318,000 Lamborghini Huracan.

Hines Defrauds Government

A man in Miami, Florida, has been sentenced to more than six years in prison this week for fraudulently obtaining millions of dollars in coronavirus relief funds and using that money for personal expenses.

David Tyler Hines, 29, is accused of falsifying federal applications to secure $3.9 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans, which were meant to help small businesses stay afloat during the pandemic.

The Justice Department claims he actually requested $13.5 million in paycheck protection loans for various companies using false and fraudulent IRS forms last year. At the time, he stated the money would ensure his employees would continue to get paid throughout the state-mandated lockdowns.

According to a federal complaint, however, those employees either never existed or earned only a fraction of what he claimed to pay them.

“Collectively, Hines falsely claimed his companies paid millions of dollars in payroll the first quarter of 2020. State and bank records, however, show little to no payroll expense during this period,” the complaint adds.

Hines Makes Luxury Purchases With Funds

Authorities said that within days of securing the nearly $4 million from the federal government, Hines began blowing it on extravagant personal purchases, including jewelry, resort stays, and a $318,000 2020 Lamborghini Huracan. Two payments totaling $30,000 were also documented as going to “mom,” according to the criminal complaint, while some money also went to dating websites.

Investigators became aware of the scam after the Lamborgini was involved in a hit-and-run incident back in July. The vehicle was ultimately linked back to Hines, which kick-started the investigation.

In February, Hines pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud in connection with the scheme. As part of the sentencing, he was ordered to forfeit the $3.4 million, as well as the Lamborghini

See what others are saying: (Orlando Sentinel) (Complex) (HuffPost)

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Trial for 3 Ex-Officers Charged in George Floyd Murder Pushed To March

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  • A Minnesota judge ruled Thursday that the August trial for three officers charged with aiding and abetting the murder of George Floyd will be postponed until March 2022 so a recently filed federal case can proceed first.
  • Ex-officers Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, and Tou Thao were indicted on federal civil rights charges shortly after Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter by a state jury last month.
  • In Thursday’s announcement, the judge also argued the postponement was necessary to create “some distance from all the press that has occurred and is going to occur this summer” regarding Chavuin’s case and upcoming sentencing.
  • No date has been scheduled for the federal trial yet, and experts have said it is unclear if it will happen before March 7, the new date set for the state case.

Judge Cahill Postpones Trial

The trial of three former Minneapolis police officers charged for their involvement in the murder of George Floyd will be pushed from August to March 2022, a judge ruled Thursday.

Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, and Tou Thao were previously facing state charges of aiding and abetting manslaughter and murder, but last week, they were indicted on additional federal civil rights charges.

The federal indictment charges Kueng and Thao with willfully failing to intervene in unreasonable use of force deployed by their fellow former colleague Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of murder and manslaughter last month for kneeling on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes.

All four ex-officers face charges for failing to provide medical care to Floyd, “thereby acting with deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of harm to Floyd,” according to the indictment.

In his decision, Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill said he moved the Minnesota trial so the federal case could proceed first. Notably, Cahill also cited his desire to create more distance between the state trial and the widely publicized legal proceedings against Chauvin.

“What this trial needs is some distance from all the press that has occurred and is going to occur this summer,” he said in court on Thursday.

A date for the federal trial has not yet been scheduled, it is uncertain if it would happen before March 7, the new date set by Cahill for the state trial.

The decision to file the civil rights charges against Lane, Kueng, and Thao came as surprise to many legal experts as federal indictments are not usually brought until after state cases are concluded.

The move is also unusual because Chauvin had already been convicted of murder in Minnesota. By contrast, the federal government normally only files charges in cases where they believe justice was not served at the state level.

For example, the four officers who were accused of beating Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 were only indicted on federal charges after they were acquitted in California.

Uncertainty Around Sentencing

Defense attorneys for Kueng, Lane, and Thao agreed with the judge’s decision, but state prosecutors did not support the delay, a fact that experts said could mean the three former officers are seeking a plea deal.

“One can infer that the defense attorneys are hoping that the federal case will offer lower penalties for their clients and a dismissal of the state charges,” Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor told the Associated Press.

Under Minnesota law, aiding and abetting is treated the same as the underlying crime. If the ex-officers are convicted, the state’s sentencing guidelines for people without previous criminal histories would recommend prison sentences of 12 and a half years for the murder counts and four years for the manslaughter counts.

Cahill, however, has the flexibility to increase the sentences if he finds aggravating factors, as he did with Chauvin in a ruling Wednesday.

In the decision, Cahill agreed with prosecutors that Chauvin abused his power, acted “particularly cruel” to Floyd, and committed the crime in front of children with at least three other people.

Experts say the judge is likely to give Chauvin a 30-year sentence for the second-degree murder charge, which carries a maximum of 40 years.

See what others are saying: (The Associated Press) (The New York Times) (NPR)

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Ohio Will Give 5 People $1 Million for Getting Vaccinated

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  • Ohio is launching a lottery program that will give five people ages 18 or older $1 million each if they receive at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Five vaccinated people between 12 and 17 years old will win full four-year scholarships to one of the state’s public universities under a similar giveaway program. 
  • Some have criticized the move as a waste and misuse of federal coronavirus relief funds, but others applauded it as a strong effort to boost slumping vaccination rates.
  • Gov. Mike DeWine (R) addressed critics on Twitter, writing, “The real waste at this point in the pandemic — when the vaccine is readily available to anyone who wants it — is a life lost to COVID-19.”

Ohio Announces Vaccine Lottery

Several states and cities across the country have been rolling out different incentives to help boost COVID-19 vaccination rates. Some are offering $100 savings bonds, $50 prepaid cards, and even free alcohol, but Ohio’s Republican Gov. Mike DeWine took it a step further Wednesday, saying that five people in his state will each win $1 million for getting vaccinated.

DeWine said that the lottery program, named “Ohio Vax-a-Million,” will be open to residents 18 and older who receive at least one dose. Drawings start May 26 and winners will be pulled from the state’s voter registration database.

The Ohio Lottery will conduct the drawings, but the money will come from existing federal coronavirus relief funds.

Younger people will also have a chance to win something. That’s because DeWine said five vaccinated people between 12 and 17 years old will be eligible to win a full four-year scholarship to one of the state’s public universities under a similar lottery program. The portal to sign up for that opens May 18.

DeWine Defends Lottery

Reactions to the giveaway have been mixed. Some echoed statements from State Rep. Emilia Sykes, the top House Democrat, who said, “Using millions of dollars in relief funds in a drawing is a grave misuse of money that could be going to respond to this ongoing crisis.”

DeWine, however, seems to have anticipated pushback like this.

“I know that some may say, ‘DeWine, you’re crazy! This million-dollar drawing idea of yours is a waste of money,'” he tweeted. “But truly, the real waste at this point in the pandemic — when the vaccine is readily available to anyone who wants it — is a life lost to COVID-19.”

Despite some backlash, a ton of other people have applauded the plan as a smart way to encourage vaccinations across all age groups. So far, about 36%of Ohio’s population has been fully vaccinated — compared with 35% nationally. 

Still, the number of people seeking vaccines has dropped in recent weeks, with an average of about 16,500 starting the process last week, which is down from figures above 80,000 in April. 

See what others are saying: (AP News) (NPR)(The New York Times)

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